Many years ago I met the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward, who had gone to the Soviet Union in 1932. “I went to see the future,” he shrugged. He rode the trains. He got bedbugs. He wrote about it, saying, “No place on earth could be as interesting.” A current New York exhibition, The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Films, transmits the dynamism and vertigo of that time and place. The photographs are heroic and compositionally extraordinary; the films are epic. In some ways the exhibition completes an initiative that began with two previous and invaluable shows at the Jewish Museum: Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change (1995) and Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater (2008). Like the earlier exhibits, this one draws together 20th-century Soviet masterpieces that aren’t familiar to the American public but should be.
Well over 50 percent of early Soviet photographers were Jewish, and many of them struggled to balance tenuous identities as Jewish Soviets. Though all major Jewish photographers of the early Soviet period are represented in the show, the museum made a decision not to make this a Jewish exhibition, which, to my mind, is a lost opportunity. While the influence and gigantic talent of the post-futurist and non-Jewish Alexander Rodchenko is everywhere and it is gratifying to be able to view the tensile photographs of Georgy Petrusov and Boris Ignatovich with their visual complexities and Hitchkockian angles, the show’s focus is diffuse, and I miss the careful historical development the Jewish Museum has come to be known for. Nonetheless, the scholarly underpinning of the exhibit is impeccable. Looking around the gallery at the many Jewish works of art in which, through a kind of prestidigitation, there’s no overt Jewish content, it’s hard not to think about the complexity of Jewish creativity and effacement—the different pressures, contingencies, and constraints facing Jews in Soviet culture as their world was disappearing.
Six magisterial photographs by portrait photographer Moisei Nappelbaum almost steal the show though they represent an aesthetic that predates the Soviet Union. Born in Minsk in 1869, Nappelbaum was more than a generation older than most of the other artists in the exhibit. Coming from a completely different starting point, he made the transition from provincial 19th-century studio photographer to fashionable portrait artist before the revolution. In St. Petersburg, where he lived illegally and without residence permit until Soviet times, he established a reputation for his insightful images of dancers, musicians, and actors; he won an international prize for his studies of Shylock in a famous Russian production of The Merchant of Venice. After the revolution, he became a favorite of Soviet leaders and photographer of almost all of Soviet intelligentsia. He opened a studio on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow and, as he put it, exercised “dictatorship of the camera,” resisting trends and persuading the men and women who came to him to surrender something of their interior life.
Nappelbaum was both an insider and an outsider, not an uncommon position for a Russian Jew. At a time when it was understood that the purpose of photography was to promote the new vision, the Soviet way of seeing a transformed society, he made few concessions, continuing to produce psychological studies, coaxing his subjects to the point at which eye contact melts into meditation. He canonized the poet Anna Akhmatova as she turned her turbaned head in silhouette and a string of beads fell along the palm of her half-folded hand. While photography was acclaimed as the great proletarian medium, he applied paint to the surface of his negatives with Soutine-like brush strokes, heightening the contrasts of light and shadow in a kind of chiaroscuro. You can see this in his photo of Pasternak, paint highlighting the outlines of the youthful writer’s long, serious face and pushing the magic of the camera in the direction of the textured canvases of Rembrandt or Chardin. With the connoisseur’s eye and from a discreet distance behind the camera, he recorded the faces of Soviet exceptionalism—poets, novelists, figures from film and politics, Jew and non-Jew, it didn’t seem to matter. Over the many decades of his career (he photographed well into the 1950s), Nappelbaum worked resolutely and undoubtedly with sadness as dozens of his subjects suffered tragically under Soviet authority.
In contrast to Napplebaum’s pictorial artistry, there’s the remarkable and radical work of El Lissitzky whose experiments with photographs and mastery of photomontage grew out of the Jewish and Russian avant-garde. Lissitzky was a protean talent, and there were many iterations to his career. As a teenager he studied painting in Vitebsk with Chagall’s teacher Yehudah Pen. He trained in Germany and later Moscow as an architect before taking part in Jewish ethnographic expeditions. He illustrated both Russian and Yiddish books—most famously Khad gadya. Under the influence of Malevich he became a Suprematist and, after that, a constructivist in Moscow. From 1921 to 1925 he lived in Germany and Switzerland and experimented with printmaking, typography, and book design, adding the new techniques of photocollage and photomontage to his repertoire.
Lissitzky experimented freely with the camera, and his ingenious photograms are included in the show. Created in Switzerland while he was recovering from tuberculosis but before his return to the Soviet Union, they demonstrate the ardent quality of his utopianism. Building on the lessons of constructivism, they celebrate the simple structural properties, shape and form, of useful objects—pliers, wire, mesh, lace, spoons—placed on photosensitive paper exposed to light. Even today the shadows of these ordinary items seem like ghostly transformations.
Lissitzky’s “Self-portrait” from the same period is a dense and enigmatic composite of everything he had the capacity to do. Produced with six layers of exposure, it includes photogram, photomontage, drawing, collage, typography, and paint. On a cubistic grid, it shows the artist’s face and, superimposed above it, his hand holding a compass, a record of his artistic history. One has to wonder how he might have been weighing his Soviet and Jewish identities, holding them in abeyance in that interlude of free-expression. After his return to the Soviet Union, the Jewish part of his life was over and he used all his skills designing exhibitions, books, posters, and catalogs for the purpose of Soviet propaganda. Much of his intricate printed matter is on view in the exhibition, highlighting the almost cinematic effect he produced with photomontage and magazine foldouts, creating his own variants of a Potemkin village.
The lion’s share of the exhibition—striking and buoyant images, often “staging happiness” as the curators put it—comes from the work of photojournalists and graphic artists. Many of them were Jews who, as teenagers, had apprenticed in studios in the Ukraine, Bellorussia, and the Baltic states before making their way to Moscow. They had seen the revolution and bloody civil wars and were hopeful for the new society. Often they sovietized their names as they found their way to the offices of the new magazines or publishing houses dedicated to telling the story of the transformation of the vast new country.
Arkady Shaikhet worked on assignment, for which there was no room for the self-expression of Nappelbaum’s portraits or the experimentation of Lissitzky’s avant-garde photographs. Nonetheless, his photos demonstrate deep technical artistry and compositional brilliance. His early photograph “Lenin’s Light Bulb: Peasants Turn on the Electricity for the First Time” documents the miracle of electrification in a peasant’s log cabin. The clarity of the photographic lens picks up the creases of the babushka’s face and the soil on her clothes, her crucifix, even the weave of her son’s Tolstoy-shirt, and brings to mind the gritty Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange. In other photos, like his beautiful study “Red Army Marching in the Snow,” his composition is more innovative. Shooting at an angle from far above, he catches two rows of Soviet soldiers on skis, silhouettes against the snowy landscape, as shadows of fence and trees fall across their path. Again, the textural detail of the photo is spectacular, capturing the way light pours through a snowy gully and the crosshatching of the many ski prints left on the snowscape.
Eleazar Langman’s “Workers With Compasses,” shot at close distance, is a more disorienting picture. Formatted with compass in the foreground and the worker’s enlarged, almost grotesque hand interrupting the view of his face, the whole composition seems destabilized by the unconventional angle of the camera lens. His “Old Lifestyle Around the Dinamo Factory, early 1930s,” is similarly challenging. While Langman took several photographs inside the Dinamo plant, which manufactured electrical machinery, this one, focusing on the architecture itself, is shot from above and captures a portion of the adjacent building where laundry hangs on a line. The contrast of the old, flawed, more homely world beside the brave new one is poignant, and one has to wonder if he intended to embed a message in the photograph—a yearning for a past that was out of reach.
Dziga Vertov, born David Abelevich Kaufman, renamed himself correctly—the translation means “spinning top.” Before turning to film he studied music, wrote poetry and satire, went to medical school, and was interested in “sensory experiences.” During the Civil Wars he worked on the agitprop trains that brought film to the battlefronts. He was a theoretician, and he was madly in love with film and with the age of the machine. His iconic Man With a Movie Camera is part of the exhibition, and Lissitzky’s photomontage based on Vertov’s famous kino glaz is truly an emblem for the whole endeavor of early Soviet photography. You watch Vertog’s film with its pyrotechnics and stunning range from court scenes to synchronized swimming and look back at Lissitzky’s image in which the director’s portrait is superimposed on the pupil and the iris of the human eye and you get a sense of the exhilaration and the conviction that the hardships of life could be changed, that the cinema eye would bring a better future. From hindsight we have to remind ourselves the artists of the age didn’t know yet the cost of manipulating the image or the pain of self-effacement.
To view a selection of works from the exhibition, click on the images below.